NSC: The Future of OSHA
Three safety and labor stakeholders convened at the National Safety Council (NSC) Congress and Expo in Anaheim, Calif., to discuss what may be in store for OSHA in the future, and how certain changes can impact both the agency and occupational safety and health in general.
The panel, which included Frank White, senior vice president of ORC Worldwide, Jordan Barab, senior labor policy advisor to the House Committee on Education and Labor and Marc Freedman, director of labor law policy at the U.S Chamber of Commerce, considered not only how the upcoming presidential administration change might impact OSHA, but exactly how much capacity the agency has for change in the first place.
“Change is the buzzword,” White said, pointing out that both presidential candidates promise change on a large scale. But he questioned how much of that proposed change will impact OSHA.
“OSHA’s never been at the top of a new administration’s agenda, so at best we probably have to wait a while before the new administration takes hold to see which changes are realistic for OSHA,” White said.
Levels of Change
White divided the OSHA changes he’d like to see into three levels: administrative change, statutory change and cultural and process change.
On the administrative front, while White acknowledged OSHA has instituted some mostly successful voluntary compliance programs, he suggested the agency should now turn its focus to other areas – such as reaching small and medium-sized workplaces and assisting them with compliance efforts. He also suggested taking a harder look at recordkeeping compliance and developing new and creative compliance incentives.
For legislation, White asserted it is “time for a more fundamental evaluation of the law itself,” describing the current model of worker protection as outdated, particularly on the global scale. Other countries, White pointed out, are focusing instead on risk assessments conducted by employers. In this type of system, employers are provided with the tools to identify, assess and prioritize risks. Inspectors examine how well employers are managing risks, rather than issuing citations for every hazard violation.
“I don’t suggest we’ll change the whole law, but how to move toward that model which is more realistic,” White said.
Finally, White also encouraged a shift from a “culture of confrontation to a culture of collaboration.” Specifically, he cited the need for strong leadership in the Department of Labor (DOL); new forums for stakeholders to collaborate and translate their agreement into action and success; and more openness and transparency within OSHA itself.
Barab asserted that the safety community needs the federal government and OSHA to take strong leadership role in occupational safety and health and to demand safer workplaces.
“We have a 30-year-old law that gives OSHA very specific responsibilities and duties to set standards for safety and health and enforce those standards,” Barab said. “Over the last several years, we have seen a failure to do that.”
Among the additional safety and health issues Barab believes OSHA needs to address include a comprehensive approach to communicable diseases; workplace violence guidelines; and work organization, which includes how working hours or stress affect the human body and, subsequently, other health and safety issues.
“I’m not saying we need standards on these issues, [but] we need the federal government to take a leadership role in addressing many of these issues,” Barab said.
Freedman, however, had a different take.
“We can sit here and debate about what direction OSHA will take or should take, but in reality, I think we all understand that’s going to be determined by who wins the White House,” Freedman said. “We really should be sitting here talking about how best to improve workplace safety, and what role, if any, OSHA should play in that answer.”
According to Freedman, there will never be enough of an OSHA enforcement presence to be the primary reason employers are doing the right thing in respect to occupational safety. This particularly is true, he said, for small businesses.
“They need the most help in improving their health and safety process, but are least likely to see an OSHA inspection,” he said of smaller businesses. “OSHA is least well-equipped to help out in that area.”
Getting the Message Out
Freedman stressed that the simple message of “safety is good” must be extended broadly to the public to gain acceptance.
“Nobody in this room has to hear about value of safety,” he said to the NSC attendees. “Really, it’s a matter of pushing that message out further.”
Freedman said the safety world needs “some sort of large, broad, public campaign” to achieve “broader, mainstream penetration.” He pointed to other public welfare campaigns, such as those focusing on smoking cessation or teen pregnancy, to draw a comparison. He also referenced recent trends in greening as an example for how the safety campaign could take off.
“The concept of going green has nothing to do with EPA,” he said. “It’s driven by other influences out there that have created the broad, popular sense of being environmentally sensitive and going green.”
Barab, however, was skeptical that this type of plan is the answer.
“Putting a safety slogan on every billboard in the United States wouldn’t save one life in Imperial Sugar or Crandall Canyon,” he said.
Panel members also disagreed about establishing ergonomics regulations. According to Barab, statistics prove ergonomic issues are a big problem in U.S. workplaces, and something needs to be done.
“It’s obviously a serious problem. We have an occupational safety health administration, they should deal with serious problems,” Barab said. “One approach that can not be taken is the one from the last 8 years: nothing. That is not the way to address this problem in the American workplace today.”
Freedman said many companies address ergonomics issues on their own, a course of action he encourages rather than making formal regulations. He added that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce would expend resources to avoid an ergonomics standard.
“At the Chamber of Commerce, we don’t believe the subject matter is appropriate for legislation,” Freedman said. “Once you put that into the context of regulation, you’re talking about force of law, enforcement, citations, and that changes the dynamic from being able to decide what makes sense to having to do what someone else thinks makes sense for you.”
Barab, who pointed out that the Chamber of Commerce has expended resources “to kill even a voluntary standard,” explained that such regulations would not necessarily result in OSHA telling an employer what to do in every case. “It’s always been more performance oriented,” he said. “It will be narrow, up to employers to determine whether there is a problem, and then address it.”
White agreed, adding, “It’s another risk you manage. You deal with that at your workplace as the issue presents itself. Handle it as you handle other risks and hazards.”
The Next Step
“I think the business community feels fairly strongly there are things that need to happen in the OSHA world to improve workplace safety, but folks on labor side wouldn’t agree to,” Freedman said. “[You] have to keep stepping back farther and farther until messages overlap.”
White, however, said he did see key areas of agreement within the groups, and he continued to stress the importance of creating new forums to provide a way to develop those connections.
“It will take leadership and willingness to sit down and try to broker these agreements,” he said.